Historical Significance

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1782

It was not too long after it changed the image that Americans had of homosexual men when it opened in 1967 that Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band came to seem dated and irrelevant. Such things can happen. Everyone has had the experience of meeting someone who makes a startling first impression and then becomes tiresome as hours drag by; certainly an innovative artistic piece is just as likely to lose its sheen once the novelty wears off. In the case of Crowley’s play, the novelty was based on its respectful handling of the many facets of gay life. Coming at a time when the only homosexuals that showed up in popular entertainment were hysterical ‘‘fruits’’ or deviants bearing the burden of their ‘‘unnatural crimes,’’ The Boys in the Band brought the spectrum of personality types among gays to the American stage.

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Not coincidentally, the same wind of change that brought the play popularity brought the Stonewall Rebellion fourteen months after it. It was bound to happen; the gay subculture in the late 1960s was too vibrant to be constrained, repressed by laws governing sexual commerce in a country that bragged about being the land of the free. It was so ready for mainstream attention that a play about eight gay men gathering in a room and talking openly became a runaway success with heterosexual audiences. It was so ready that a few drag queens resisting arrest at the Stonewall Inn one summer night could generate a melee of bricks and bottles, turning the tables on the police and making them hide in fear from the power of homosexuals, building over the next few days to one of late-twentieth- century America’s most significant political moments.

After the riots in Greenwich Village that started at Stonewall brought the struggle for recognition to the streets, there was suddenly less need for a stage play to tell the world about gay diversity. Lacking its social impact, The Boys in the Band was vulnerable to the criticism that almost always comes up when a work is conspicuously popular. Detractors said it was facile; that it dealt in stereotypes; that, truthful as it was, it failed to present the whole truth; and that it should set a more positive example for young homosexuals, one not so despairing. As quickly as the play ascended, so too did it burn out in a flash. The world was different for gays at the start of the 1970s, and The Boys in the Band was already a relic.

In his introduction to the collection of his most significant works, 3 Plays by Mart Crowley, the author mentions, while discussing the autobiographical element of his writing, that The Boys in the Band was originally going to be set in a gay bar but that he changed the setting to a birthday party after attending a birthday party for one of his friends. It is in such seemingly random decisions that art is born. What it might have gained in authenticity from being in a bar setting, the play would have lost in sympathy for its characters. The bar scene has always been a part of the urban gay scene. Much of the cause of this is the social pressures that kept homosexuality underground for most of the country’s history. There were always secret meeting places known to insiders—certain park paths, movie balconies, subway platforms, and so forth—but these were out in the public, functional only for quick meetings, not for social bonding. It is only natural that gay bars would provide privacy in a social atmosphere. Still, a bar setting would have driven home the negative stereotyping that the play has been criticized for over the years. Any culture’s bar scene is likely to highlight elements that the gay culture, in particular, has spent decades living down. A reputation for promiscuity, drug abuse, and for outrageous, decadent, open sexuality would only have been reinforced by a...

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